Tuesday, October 31, 2017

A Recipe for Receiving Sacramental Grace

In the readings for the Tuesday of the 30th Week in Ordinary Time, the Gospel is from Luke.  In it, Jesus asks twice, “To what shall I compare the Kingdom of God?”   He first compares it to a mustard seed and then to yeast.
               Back when I ate bread on a regular basis, I baked my own bread.  Most store bread tasted like cardboard to me.  So, I know something of baking good bread.  Jesus mentions throwing yeast in with flour so that it rises.  Truth be told, in bread baking, you need more than mere flour and yeast.  Water must be added. Sometimes other ingredients such as eggs, oil, and such are added.

               I know all analogies fall apart at some time, but allow me to run with this.

               We are told the Kingdom of God is like yeast which transforms the whole of the dough.  The yeast is mixed in with the other ingredients (kneaded).  The grace God gives us is supposed to transform us entirely, not partially.  The Kingdom is not meant to be allowed into certain compartments of our lives, but into the totality of our being and our lives.

               Every sacrament we receive is like this yeast.  God, through His grace, inserts that life of the Kingdom into us.  For it to reach its fruition, several others factors must also be at play; we cannot be perpetually passive receptors of this grace.  As in a loaf of bread, other ingredients need to be in play or the yeast is left dormant or is wasted.

               The flour is our lives; our human bodies and human souls.  It is the context of our lives that this yeast is deposited. We do not give sacraments to animals.  We do not give them to plants.  They don’t need them.  We do.  We need sacraments because, unlike the rest of the created order, we have the ability to freely choose to love.  To properly use this gift (aka “the image and likeness of God”), we must be open to what is happening.  We need the Kingdom inserted within us to help us live as members of the Kingdom.  The sacraments concretize this as signs and symbols we can understand, so that our bodies and souls may be filled with that Kingdom.  Our bodies, though, are not all that is needed. 

               There are two other essential ingredients needed: our minds and our souls.  We are spiritual and rational creatures; the sacraments are not just meant to influence and transform our bodies, but our minds and souls as well.  The yeast isn’t meant to transform part of our lives, but the totality of our lives; every crevice and nook.  Hence, the disposition of our minds and souls matter. 

The Necessary Ingredient of our Mind

               The Catholic faith is not an emotion-based religion; it is a reason-based religion.  Belief matters.  The intellectual premises we hold matter.  For the yeast that is the Kingdom of God to be activated, we must believe that the sacrament is what we say it is.  It is why we do training on any of the sacraments.  It is why we stress you understand what is going on.  Your action in receiving a sacrament must be an act of free will.  Even in the case of infant baptism, the parents must understand and believe what is happening actually happens. Without that belief or act of free will, the sacrament is NOT to be given.  This is why I cannot give a dead person a sacrament.  This is why I cannot force a person to receive a sacrament.  This is why I cannot give any other sacrament to a person if they lack the ability to understand what is happening; it is why we wait till a child has reached the ‘age of reason’ before either Confirmation or the Eucharist are given.  Without the intellectual capacity, a key ingredient to make the dough rise is gone.

               This is why a person must intend what the Church intends in the reception of the sacrament.  For example, if a person entering into a marriage does not intend what the church intends in regard to matters such as fidelity, permanence, having children and such, I cannot allow the marriage to take place.  It invalidates the marriage.  It is why I cannot do an infant baptism if the parents are against it or have no intention of raising their child Catholic.  I could go on, but the point is that our positive mental and reasoned assent is necessary, even if we do not completely understand fully the mysteries we celebrate.  We must be mentally open to the reception of the grace given.  (cf Code of Canon Law 913. 914)

The Necessary Ingredient of our Soul

               Save baptism and confession, our souls must be in a state of grace to receive them properly.  Just as the dispositions of our minds matter in the reception of a sacrament, so too, the disposition of our soul matters.  Having rational souls, our openness spiritually to the reception of a sacrament can fulfill or render defunct the grace given us. To lose the state of grace is to have mortal sin on our soul.  We are given this grace through baptism.  The grace, specifically, is what is called sanctifying grace; a grace by which the void left by original sin is filled by God’s action and enters us into an eternal relationship with God.  When we choose to mortally sin, we cast out this sanctifying grace by our own choice.  Without that sanctifying grace, any sacrament, save Confession, is rendered void by our own choice.  It is in Confession that the sanctifying grace given at Baptism, necessary for sacramental grace to have effect, lost by the willful choice to mortally sin, is restored, again by God’s grace. 

               Without Confession, every act of a sacrament is damaged or destroyed.  It is why we ask a person entering into matrimony, being confirmed, being ordained, being anointed with the Oil of the Infirmed, and receiving Communion to go to confession if they are aware of mortal sin being committed by them.  This is a serious matter.  That sanctifying grace must be present in our souls for the reception of Marriage, Holy Orders, Anointing of the Sick, Confirmation, and Eucharist.  Each of these strengthens the already existent bonds formed by God’s sanctifying grace (cf CCC 1391).  That lack of sanctifying grace excommunicates us from that relationship with God and with His people!  A person in this state should not receive these sacraments until this situation is rectified through sacramental confession (cf Code of Canon Law 915, 916)  So heinous is this, that in reference to the reception of Communion, St Paul reminds us in I Corinthians 11: 27-29, that to receive unworthily is to call upon the wrath of God upon ourselves.  One does not waste God’s grace without consequence, especially the grace given to us through the Sacrifice of the Cross.

               Hence, the necessity of Confession is made plain.  If God does indeed deposit the Kingdom of God in us in each of the sacraments, whether to initiate (Baptism), reinstate (Confession), or strengthen and define (Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, Eucharist, Matrimony, & Holy Orders) our souls must be open.  To close off our minds through ignorance or our souls through sinfulness is to waste the grace given.  God’s grace isn’t passive or magic; it requires our intentional response.  The yeast needs the other ingredients so as to make bread.

Here’s The Kicker

               I know, this might come as a shock to most Catholics.  In most parishes, sacramental prep is more like jumping through hoops to get a desired merit badge.  We give some effort to the intellectual preparation, but as to the spiritual, we lack.  I believe that the dearth of the devotional life has led to some of this.  I believe the compartmentalizing of our lives into God and Not God sections has led to this.  I believe the almost entirely absent understanding of personal sin (replaced with corporate sin; aka…other people’s sins) has led to this.  Add to this the miniscule confession times, and you would think we are entirely okay with ignorant or sinful reception of the sacraments! You would think we are okay with a minimalist merit badge type of faith life.

               Perhaps, this is why the Church in the west is dying.  Maybe this is why Mass attendance is plummeting.  It’s not that we demand too much, it’s that we have compromised so much away that we have rendered the sacramental life of the Church as irrelevant to our day-to-day lives.  It is why the Kingdom of God is flushed from so much of our lives. 

               As a pastor, I want the grace given in each sacrament to find its mark and transform the soul given it.  It is why I do adult education, make it my business to know what our youth and RCIA candidates are being taught, make it my business to know what series are being used in my school and other educational outlets, and wildly expand the confession times.  It is why I write these long columns.  I, as a pastor, want you to receive that Kingdom of God given you through the sacraments in such a way so as to produce much fruit in your life, your family members’ lives, and in each parishioner’s life! That fruit can transform anything it touches because that fruit is saturated with God’s grace.  As I want to see each and every one of you in heaven, I will continue to teach this.  It makes sense.  It is reasonable.  It might be uncomfortable and challenging; but that is why we need God’s grace.   



Monday, October 23, 2017

A Lost Sheep Comes Home

Many times, as a Catholic pastor, I will get approached by parents who are upset about or grieving a son who has abandoned the faith.  It seems a weekly occurrence. Some wonder where things went wrong, seeing their son’s rejection of the faith as a failure on their part to raise the child correctly.  Some believe they did everything they could but that their son still rejected the faith.  For some parents, this is a deeply painful rejection not just of faith, but of themselves as well.

I suppose I get approached with this as much as I do because of my own story.  I was an agnostic.  I was one for a long time.  Officially I was about 4 or 5 years, but for much of my life before that, I was as well.  This might seem strange for those who know me and know I was in a High School seminary. 

I am reticent to write much about how I became agnostic as it would seem to be a condemnation of family, friends, and others of influence in my life.  I do not wish to do this as, with very few exceptions, no one tried to drive me into a lack of faith.  I will write, though, because it might be instructive to parents, teachers, my brother clergy, and even to the young man who has abandoned faith.

I will readily admit that no two stories are the same.  What contributed to my path is unique to me.  However, there are more things that unite us in the human experience than separate us.  Take from this what you want.   

A Tale of Two Gods

In my youth, I was presented with two very different gods. 

God A was an angry guy.  If He loved us, it was begrudgingly so.  He didn’t like us.  Sure, He sent His Son and all, but even that seemed like just another reason for angry God to be angry with us.  This God has a long list of the hell bound.  This God loved entrapment.  He allows us to be tempted and then slams us when we fall.  Love to this God, was a fearful submission.  He was an all-powerful bully.  Worship was appeasement; worship was stroking the eternal ego of angry god.  Angry god was like a cat…three strokes on the belly to make me happy, four strokes and I will gnaw your hand off!

God B was fluffy guy.  He was a peace, love, and crunchy granola type.  He was the smiling hippie who just oozed positive emotions.  Honestly, he was kind of really effeminate and hard to take seriously.  He was little more than a numbing agent when life got hard.  He was as effective at guiding me in life as a untrained golden retriever puppy.  I love Goldens.  Don’t get me wrong. There was, however, very little about this god that a young man, such as myself, saw as worthy of my time.

I wanted nothing to do with either version.  It seemed all wrong.  I couldn’t tell you why it was all wrong, but my gut told me it was.  That was problematic.  I was looking for an identity, especially in what it meant to be a man.  Either god’s definition of manhood, so much based in their own definition, left me cold.  I didn’t want to be the angry guy.  I didn’t want to be the wuss either.


               My 7th and 8th grade years were brutal.  In sixth grade, when my family lived in Kentucky, my dad, siblings, and I converted to Catholicism from being kind of Protestants.   I got my first real good look at angry god.  My classmates started bullying me, friends abandoned me, and I felt isolated quickly.  I was told I was going to hell.  We moved to Missouri and I was put into a Catholic School.  I fared no better there.  Being excessively short and scrawny for my age, I was a prime target for bullying. It was the first time I was exposed to a religion class as a part of the regular curriculum, and it was there I got exposed to fluffy god.  It was also where I first had the first real doubts.  You see, we talked about fluffy happy Jesus who just loved, loved, loved. Problem was, that was far from my experience with those Catholics around me.

               Home life was little respite. The breakdown of family was starting in earnest and would drag out for the next 8 years.  Fluffy god wasn’t terribly effective at stopping the breakdown.  No matter how much religion we jammed into our lives, the breakdown didn’t stop.

               I ended up in high school seminary for one reason and one reason only: it got me out of my home and away from my home town.  Things were better at the high school seminary than at home.  Even there, though, it was still fluffy god.  I paid lip service to thinking about priesthood.  I had to.  The alternative was going back to what I was trying to escape.  I did love my family, even with all the dysfunction.  However, if I never saw my old schoolmates and the parish again, I would be okay.  I did like the pastor of my parish.  He was a good guy who did try hard.  He was the one thing that kept me attached to faith of any kind; at least a willingness to stay nominally Catholic.

               I had no relationship with God though.  I went to Mass every day.  I had to.  I prayed morning and evening prayer every day.  I had to.  I went to religion class 5 times a week.  I had to.  Honestly, there wasn’t too much loopy going on; but it left me cold.  I felt nothing.  I had some friends.  That was enough…that and it wasn’t my home town.  There was some comfort in going through the motions.

               When I graduated, I went to college seminary.  I went because it was expected.  I was on my way into drifting into the priesthood.  It was there that a new ugly beast arose.  In High School Seminary, we were taught to believe generally what the Church teaches.  But, in my first three years of college… not so much.  Whatever faith was there died.  Everything was an argument, even what we could call the persons of the Trinity.   Church moral teaching was at best a buffet in which each was presented in the worst possible light. I hated going to Mass and prayer.  I skipped quite a bit.  Everything seemed empty.  I struggled. I started dating girls in secret.  I was disconnecting from something I was barely connected to at all.

               Even with all this, I still thought I was going to be a priest.  Heaven knows why, I didn’t believe.  I ended up transferring seminaries my senior year.  A part of me knew that if I were going to make the next step, then a change of venue was going to be necessary.  I wish I had gone to that seminary all along.  This story might have taken a different turn.  There, I got the closest I had gotten to an encounter with the actual God.  But, right on cue, the second semester of my senior year, my parents separated for the last time.  God once again seemed impotent.  I was furious.  My fury was picked up by the review board for the theologate and they recommended I wait till the dust settled before I went on.  In my mind’s eye, the impotent god’s failure was complete.  I went back to my practical agnosticism.

               Going home, now in New York, religion became something I couldn’t abandon altogether. I still went to Mass so as not to scandalize my family.  The pastor, though, was an idiot who loved angry god.  Our fights were many.  Even with that, once he found out I had been a seminarian, a full court press was started to get me back in the seminary.  I went.  It was a huge mistake.  The place I went for less than one year was such a troubling place where faith was drained and in its place an uberliberal anti-faith rose, that I finally was convinced to quit going through the motions.  I left the seminary and the faith.

Give Me Something to Believe In

               During my time in the desert, the one place I found any solace was in music.  I listened to the radio quite a lot.  In 1990, a song by Poison, called “Give Me Something to Believe In” was released and became a hit.  It nailed where I was in my life.  The song,  a heart wrenching ballad written by the lead singer after the death of a close friend, is the pleading of a man who sees so much pain and strife, so much hypocrisy, and wants something to make sense of it all.

               I wanted to believe in something.  I wanted all of this to make sense.  I had tried the whole religion thing and found it wanting.  I wasn’t angry so much as I was despondent and confused.  If God was who I was told He was, why did my family break up?  Why was I bullied by those who said they believed? Why was there pain?  This led to my owning agnosticism.  I could never make the jump that creation spontaneously happened, so atheism was out.  However, I figured there might well be a god, but who He is is inaccessible to us.   We were all just grasping at straws trying to make a god who fit our own predilections.

               Like my other approaches, this didn’t fulfill me either.  There was still some longing there and I had no idea where to go with it.  Like so many others, I tried to fill that longing.  I became the master of keeping up appearances.  Deep inside I was restless and getting more and more resentful.  That resentment found its way in my attitude to ‘organized religion’ as a farce that preyed upon those honestly seeking for truth and towards the ‘true believers’ who sneered at those who didn’t believe as they believed.  When I was seeking a deeper bond somewhere, religion drove me further and further away.

Toy Soldiers
               Nature abhors a vacuum. So does the human heart.  I found solace in many things as well.  I worked.  I worked a lot.  I dated.  I had a knack for picking poorly.  That might have had something to do with looking in bars for something.  If I couldn’t walk out with a girl, at least I could walk out with a buzz. I found that with alcohol (beer specifically, hard liquor and I just didn’t agree) took the edge off from the emptiness.  I went from wanting it to needing it.  I was good at keeping up respectable appearances, though. I may be many things, but I am not stupid.  I knew where this was going.  I was just having a hard time hitting the brakes.

               Without God, it is said, all things are permissible. Maybe all things aren’t legal, but laws can be changed.  My attempt to find something I could believe in was heading south.  I knew it.  I remember one night lying in bed with the radio on.  The bed felt like it was spinning.  I hated that feeling.  I remember an  old song coming on, ‘Toy Soldiers’ by Martika coming on.  It is sad song about someone struggling with an addiction.  When the line, “How could I be so blind to this addiction?  If I don’t stop, the next one is going to be me.” was sung, it was like a dagger to my heart.  It was probably one of the hardest cries I have ever had.  I was on the wrong road.  I had this emptiness and I believed I had nothing to fill it.  That night marked the last time I went out to a bar to get drunk.

               I cleaned up my act.  But I was restless.  I thought I needed a change of venue.  I had the girl I loved, the job I loved, but it wasn’t enough. I took the first promotion from my company that got me out of New York.  Maybe a new beginning would help things.  So off to Missouri again I went.

Hole Hearted

               I have to admit I was a bit of a hair band kind of guy.  Of all the albums I had, it was Extreme’s ‘Pornograffiti’ that I liked the most.  I was especially fond of the harder rock songs on the album.  The two acoustic songs I didn’t really care for.  My neighbors in the condo heard it more than once.

               How is this relevant?  Well, you see, I put my heart and soul into the new position.  Once again, though, it was unfulfilling.  I ran into a few friends from my years prior in Missouri.  They were people of great faith.  In just a few discussions, being very careful to stay off of the topic of religion, in started to occur to me that maybe the hole and emptiness I had could only be filled with one thing: God.  Honestly, I bristled at the idea.  I tried religion, heck, I was going to be a priest.  It didn’t work.   But it would not leave me alone.

               One night, while playing the above mentioned album, the song ‘Hole Hearted’, came on.  I had been distracted by trying to figure out my life and I heard in the background, “If I’m not blind, why can’t I see that circle can’t fit where a square should be.”  Right words at the right time.  It occurred to me that what I had spent the last 4 years doing was trying to fill a hole with something that wouldn’t fill it.  It was time to give this god thing another chance.

               It was timid business though.  I knew that I still wanted nothing to do with either angry god or fluffy god.  I went out and tried to find God on my own.  This, too, was unfulfilling, because I caught on rather quickly that all I was doing was creating a God I could be comfortable with.  It seemed to me that that was already done by others.  If I was going to do this whole God thing, I wanted to find the real one.

The Road Home

               For me, I started out with a basic question, “If I were a God who created, why would I do it and what would I desire?”  That led me to find the God of Judeo-Christianity.  Unlike other religions, where creation was bad and man especially evil, in Judeo-Christianity, God created on purpose and with a purpose out of love.  This made sense to me.  How then all the turmoil?  It made sense to me that if that creation turned on Him by not loving Him back, that the obvious result would be turmoil.  That He doesn’t destroy that creation and start again however much it deserves it, spoke to that love.  The whole Jesus event then made incredible sense.  If a God who loves His fallen creation really loves them, He will do what is necessary to draw them back in without destroying them; He would destroy what separated them.

               What then was I to do with a lifetime of seeing His followers not getting that?  What was I going to do with those followers who presented Him as angry god or as fluffy god.  If I were going to re-engage in faith, I had to search for what was authentic, even if what was authentic challenged me to my core.  In fact, I was hoping that an encounter with God would shake me to my very core.  I wanted to get as close to that creator who loved as I could.

               Why, then, do I need a Church?  Can’t I just find this God on my own?  Why? Because I knew there were other people looking as well.  There were other people who wanted something to fill that emptiness just like I did.  I started looking at what various churches taught about God.  I saw a lot of the angry god and fluffy god.  It was St. John Paul II that captured me.  I would read what he would write and listen to his words and it became clear that what he believed…that’s what I was looking for.  His god was neither angry nor fluffy.  Then as I looked at what the Church actually taught, I realized that I had found what I was looking for in the last place I wanted to find it.  I had written off Catholicism as hijacked by crazies. 

               I was content to be a layman who would engage in this.  I could be a teacher.  I could volunteer.  The problem was that the more I engaged in faith, the more empty the rest of my life seemed.  I had found my love.  I wasn’t ready to commit though.

The Steep and Winding Trail

               I remember the first time the thought crossed my mind about maybe I was actually called to priesthood all along.  For a split second, I felt sucker-punched. No.  I came back in a way I never had before.  I was willing to engage in an eternal relationship with God.  I would be a proper spokesman for Him, but on my terms.  I was okay with there being a fire as long as I could direct its path.  I would soon find out that fires purge and it would be painful.

               I was drawing closer to the God that had so evaded me in my younger years.  I suppose a better way of putting it, wasn’t so much God evaded me, but I hid from Him.  Either way, the closer I got, the more I became aware of what needed to change.  Changing was not going to come easy.

               When I finally consented in my head to at least looking at seminary again, I found it was going to be a steep uphill battle.  I, who had wanted things on my own terms, was going to be put in a crucible.  I hated it then.  I see the absolute necessity for it now.  All that I had accrued while working in the private sector eventually dissipated. The vocational director of the diocese remembered me from years past and hated me.  He had no interest in my being a seminarian and actively fought it even after I was accepted in the seminary.

               My old girlfriend was not one to give up either.  Having that safety net under me made letting go all the easier when things became hard.  One of the hardest purgings in my life was letting go of that safety net.  God wanted my full attention.  This time I couldn’t run away from the current reality.  This time I was going to have to stand my ground.


               Decades have passed since those days.  It is a lifetime ago.  My relationship with God and His Church grows.  However, I have not forgotten what those days in the wilderness felt like.  I have not forgotten how I got there, what I did when I was there, and how I got out of there.

               I know that not all stories, not even the majority of stories, end as mine did.  I know there are still many young people, both men and women, who wander.  They may not call it that.  They might angrily deny they are; I would have.  But we should never lose hope. 

               We are told that the Good Shepherd looks for his lost sheep.  I was one of those lost sheep.  He found me.  That’s why I dedicate the rest of my days looking for the lost sheep…even if they don’t think they’re lost.     

               God used what he could to get my attention.  A few well-placed songs, my searching and restlessness, even my pain, to get me back where I needed to be.

               I end with this.  I imagine that many wander for the same reason I did. They were presented a god, angry, fluffy, or otherwise that bore little resemblance to God and balked at it.  We have to do a much better job in our catechesis in presenting the fullness and truth of God.   We want something we can believe in.  We crave it.  St. Augustine, another famous wanderer, put it best, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” 

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Biggest Non-Shocker Of Them All

Talk about something hiding in plain sight.  Show me a person's body of work and I will see something of person who they are.  To give an example:  every homily I give tells the listener not just about what we believe, but what I believe as well.  The kind of person I am and the spirituality I espouse are exposed with every word that trickles from my mouth.  Who I am is seen through what I as  a pastor am willing to allow in my parish and what I see as priorities.

Any artist will tell you that they expose a bit of themselves in their art. Be it writing, painting, sculpting,  acting, and so forth, the artist reveals something of who he or she is to the world.  Their values and beliefs seep through what they put out there or what the green light or even finance.

This can be a good thing or a curse.  There are many in the artistic fields that are good people and their work shows this.  There are those in the artistic fields, as well, who are vile, and their work shows forth that as well.

When we look at the scandals in Hollywood and the entertainment industry, how can anyone be really shocked.  Other fields have had similar scandals, including my own of Catholic priesthood, but what gave scandal is that the work put out there and the life lived were at odds.  You can't preach peace, love, and crunchy granola on the one hand and molest children on the other.  The indignation and betrayal was real.  It was understandable that people didn't see this coming.

I'm not feeling that with Hollywood though.  In fact, I don't feel that with the entertainment industry as a whole.  They have been telegraphing who they are for decades.  How many movers and shakers in the entertainment industry coveted those invitations to the Playboy Mansion, to cozy up with Hugh Hefner?  Hefner built an empire on the exploitation of women!  Shocker that many of these guys were exploiting women, huh?  Look at their movies.  The mountain range full of violence and sexual exploitation of women is mammoth.  Being excessively exploitative of women and children is considered daring and  award worthy.  Most musical genres have a dim view of women as little more than party accessories.  How can we be surprised when the people that make this stuff and finance this stuff are engaged in this stuff?!

The scandal with the treatment of women is going to pale once the sexual exploitation of children comes out.  Remember, this is the industry that wanted to give Roman Polanski and R. Kelly passes.  This is the industry that has made money with the sexualization of our children.  This is the industry that has endlessly marketed smut to our children and finances so much of the continued sexualization of our children.  Several stars have talked about how they were passed around like party favors as children.  Looking at the body of work of this industry, it will be galling that anyone feign shock.  It has been hiding in plain site, jumping up and down with glee, for many years.

Maybe the indignation that people have comes from the fact they should have seen this all along, but were so conditioned to admire these people, that it was simply excused away until it could not be excused any more.  Let's be honest.  Look at what is on TV.  Look at the movies.  Listen to what is actually being sung.  Take away the violence and the sex/sexual innuendo..and what is left?  How can we be truly shocked?

Garbage in, garbage out.  We feed ourselves at a dumpster and we get the nutritional value of a dumpster.  I cut out the diet of sex and violence given by the industry a long time ago.  I found that without my emotions continually being manipulated towards anger, lust, greed, and gluttony, that getting my life in order was much easier.  I am not saying I am a finished product by any means. However without a steady diet of violence, filth, and sex, I find it easier to be who I want to be.

I am not saying all songs are bad.  Nor am I saying all TV and movies are bad.  I am saying that the filth being exposed in Hollywood and the entertainment industry has been there all along, unhidden.  Will its exposure change anything, or will it die down as the cornucopia of filth still spews on?  That is up to us. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Of God and Caesar

"Render unto Caesar that which are Caesar's, and unto God that which are God's"

 This saying from the Gospels is perhaps one of the more misunderstood of the sayings of Jesus.  It is answer to a question about whether to pay the census tax or not.  The enemies of Jesus think they have Him trapped.  The tax was levied by the hated Roman Empire which occupied the land of Israel.  The Pharisees send their disciples with a group they hated, the Herodians to try to pose an unanswerable question.  Should the Jews pay the loathsome tax or not?  If Jesus says 'yes', the Pharisees can turn the people on Jesus, dismissing Him as a Roman puppet.  If He says 'no', then the Herodians can run to the Romans and have Jesus executed as a rebel.

Jesus asks for the coin used to pay the tax.  It is a Roman coin with the Emperor's image on it.  He then says the famous quote of rendering unto Caesar that which are his and unto God what is His.  So what is Jesus saying?  What is He not saying?

Render unto Caesar...

 We live as citizens of the countries in which we inhabit.  The general upkeep of that country is to our advantage.  Infrastructure,  public safety, defense, are among the things that fellow citizens pool their monies together through taxes to build and maintain such things.  Living in a country such as the United Sates, we have a duty to vote for those who govern.  Our common bonds as citizens does mean we should work to the common good.

That said, we need to remember every form of government and every nation are man made entities.  History shows us countries and governments rise and fall.  The mighty Roman Empire that existed in the time of Jesus and the early Church has faded into the annuls of history.  Caesar and his ilk are temporary beings at best.

Because they are mere beings and not gods, Caesar is not all powerful nor can he rule without boundaries. Whether it be in the form of a monarchy, a republic, or even a dictatorship; any authority Caesar has, he is answerable to God for how he exercised that authority.  The founders of this country recognized that rights were bestowed on us by our Creator.  A government may help in the protection of those rights, but is cannot give rights and withdraw rights that are not theirs to give or take.  Caesar is not a god, however much he might think himself one.

Bigger Than Government

I see the Caesers of this world as more than just mere governments.  Governments are constructs of societies from which they rose.   Caesar, by extension, is the societies we live in at large.  They are the cultures to which we belong.  Being social beings, we humans form bonds of family, friendship, and community to sustain the common good.  It is good thing to have mutual support.  We can band together for common purposes as education, food, defense, and so on.  We build economic systems to help enrich the lives of each other.

These socioeconomic systems, like our governmental systems, work better when we contribute to the common good.  It is a Christian principle that we are vested in the good of not merely myself, but of those around me as well.  Like the governmental systems, these socioeconomic systems are also man made entities that rise and fall.  Like governmental systems, they are also not free to rule without constraint.  Those who run these enterprises are just as answerable to God for the use of their authority as much as kings and presidents are.

Little Caesars

Any enterprise can serve to common good.  Schools, sports leagues, fraternal orders, and other social constructs can be good.  Certainly if we commit to their growth, we have a duty to help in such things.   We can form these entities for such things as entertainment, health, or education.  It must be understood that these too are mere human creations that come and go.  Even those that run these little Caesars are answerable to God for what little authority has been delegated them.


Left unchecked or left with slavish devotion, any of these Caesar can morph into insatiable monsters.  Whether it a government who taxes its citizens heavily, to businesses that demand inordinate amounts from their employees times, to schools and athletics that forget they are not a first priority but demand to be treated as such, the Caesars can gobble up as much as we allow them to have.

First come promises to cajole us into the surrender of more time, energy, and resources.  Every inch given is answered with more cajoling for more and more and more.  The promise is made that is we surrender this time, resources,  and energy that Caesar will grant us whatever it is we desire.

Left uncheck, Caesar will not only want what is proper to his realm, but will want what isn't proper to his realm as well.  He will want what is God's as well.  He will do so without apology.

There was a time, when I was child, that with few exceptions, everything was closed on Sundays.  Sundays were a time for God, rest, and family.  But Caesar wanted Sunday too.  First, not the mornings.  But the mornings were taken as well. We complained, but Caesar got what he wanted.  If the stress of a 7 day week got to us, not his problem.  If that time for God was reallocated and our relationship with God was limited to an hour at best, not his problem.  If time with our families was limited to car time, again, not his problem.  God's creation, Caesar put his heel to God's nose and we suffer for it.

The Real Challenge

The real challenge with humanity is not rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar, but it has always been rendering unto God what is God's.


This is my theory:  Caesar takes from you and gives you some of it back in the form of goods and services.  He determines what an hour of your life is worth.  The state takes and redistributes as it sees fit.

God, however, gives freely from Himself.  He ask for a little of it in return.  He doesn't have a IRS to come and seize it.  Because God gives in love, He expects us to give in love as well.  Caesar is motivated by what he can be given, God is motivated by what He can give.  This makes it easier to take God for granted, to ignore God, and to take what is His and give it to Caesar.

Caesar needs to be told no.  For his good and ours...he needs to be told no.


Because all things of Caesar pass away.  Every government, country, economic enterprise, every form of entertainment and sport will in its turn pass into the dustbin of history.  All we give to Caesar turns to ash...every single molecule.  The Caesar, especially the Frankencaesars, are not gods; they are not eternal.   What we invest, sometimes as a right necessity, will one day be no more.  When we take from God what is His, we lose our investment and what goes with it.

We must render unto God what is His because it is to our benefit as well.  rendering unto God what is His gives us the ability to know Him more.  That relationship strengthens all others.  In giving to Him what is His, He in return gives us far greater.  He doesn't make us dine on ashes, but promises eternal life for those who will love as He does.  To give Him thanksgiving is to our vested interest. The portion we give to Him is returned many times over.

Be aware though, that we cannot take what is His and either hoard it to ourselves or give it to a Caesar and still expect to reap the benefits of  what we render to Him.  God isn't a dupe.  God gets the final word.  All Caesars great and small will stand before Him.  They will be judged.  their kingdoms, great and small will disappear into nothingness and rot.

A Necessary Pushback

We need to push back on what we give to Caesar, especially if to give to him required our taking from God what is His and our taking from our family what is theirs.  We should not need laws to tell us to give holy the Sabbath.  We should know better and act accordingly. We should be pushing back at what demands our time on the day of the Lord that is not worship of God nor the rest that He commanded us to do.

If I am shorting God on my tithe because that money is going elsewhere , but I still want God to bless me, we set ourselves up.  Those resources were to go to worship, religious formation, and to the poor.  When my time to care for a love one is supplanted by Caesar's demands, we have to push back.  We do this because it is in our own best interest to do so.

The Caesars in life are not always bad things.  Kept in their proper priority, they can do wonderful and helpful things.  The frankencaesars, though, must die.

We human beings are not made to be perpetually drained like livestock, but were made to be loved.  So what will it be?  Do we ally ourselves with God who first sees us as someone to love or do we ally ourselves with a Caesar who sees us as something to take from?  The choice is ours.  I will render what is needed in the form of taxes, votes, and looking to the common good.  But Caesar does not get what is God's.  That includes the Caesar I see looking back at me in the mirror every morning.